Saturday, February 06, 2021

"Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet": review

Directed by Roger Allers and produced by Salma Hayek (Hayek-Pinault since 2009), 2014's animated film "Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet" is an adaptation of the most famous work by Kahlil Gibran, his 1923 story The Prophet, which is less a story than a series of sermons.  The film has one principal director and several co-directors, each of whom was placed in charge of animating one of the main character's discourses.  "The Prophet" features the voice talents of Liam Neeson, Salma Hayek, John Krasinski, Frank Langella, Alfred Molina, John Rhys-Davies, and Quvenzhan√© Wallis (the little sprite from "Beasts of the Southern Wild"; her name is pronounced "kwuh-VAN-juh-ney").

There are several very significant differences between Gibran's book The Prophet and the movie "The Prophet."  The main character in the book is named Almustafa; in the movie, he's merely Mustafa.  The framing story is also radically different.  In the book, Almustafa has spent twelve years among the people of Orphalese (a fictional Lebanese city; both Gibran and Salma Hayek are of Lebanese descent), and now the ship taking him back to his homeland has arrived.  He stands at the shore and gives the city folk one last sermon on several topics; the topics are suggested by the city folk themselves:  marriage, love, children, labor, death, etc.  Eventually, Almustafa says his final words to the people and promises to return—although perhaps not in his current mortal form:  "Another woman shall bear me."

In the movie, Mustafa (Neeson) has been under house arrest in Orphalese for seven years.  He has been tended to by a beautiful, widowed housekeeper named Kamila (Hayek), who has a troublemaking daughter named Almitra (Wallis).  (Almitra is also a character in Gibran's book, but in The Prophet, she is an adult.)  Almitra has been mute ever since the death of her father two years back, but she vocalizes while "talking" to the local seagulls, squawking along with them and seemingly understanding them.  When the movie's story begins, Almitra has been stealing food from the marketplace, arousing the ire of the citizens, who universally condemn Kamila as a bad mother unable to control her wayward child.  Almitra sneaks over to Mustafa's residence one day while her mother is working there, and Mustafa proves to be a kind, gentle-hearted soul—a poet and artist who accepts Almitra as she is.  The girl feels comfortable around Mustafa, and the two bond.  Soon after, a gruff sergeant (Molina) marches into Mustafa's residence and informs him that his house arrest has ended, and he is free to go:  a ship awaits him.  The rest of the movie depicts Mustafa's walk to the shore; as he meets various people, he offers some of the discourses found in Gibran's book.  

Each discourse is animated in a different style; some sequences look like pencil sketches, while others are as lush and graceful as William Blake paintings come to life.  In most cases, the imagery is vague and tantalizing, but in some instances, the images are concrete, such as an amusing (and slightly naughty) tango sequence associated with a discourse on love.  

What Mustafa doesn't know, as he walks toward the waiting ship, is that the sergeant has secretly told the pasha (Langella) that Mustafa is still a malign influence on the people of Orphalese, so as the story unfolds before us, it becomes doubtful as to whether Mustafa will ever make it onto the ship that will take him home.  

So the movie's framing story is far removed from that of the book.  The book's version of events remains so abstract that it's hard to tell in what historical period Almustafa's discourses are taking place.  He could be a first-century Jesus in Galilee, or a wisdom figure during the Middle Ages.  The movie, by contrast, shows us enough modern technology in terms of vehicles and weapons for us to understand that the setting is Lebanon, possibly in the early twentieth century.  The movie's Mustafa also seems far more politicized, given that he is viewed by the local authorities as a seditious figure—a modern Socrates corrupting the minds of the populace and undermining the government.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie.  Liam Neeson's commanding voice was a natural fit for the role; Neeson has played godlike and authoritative figures in quite a few films:  Aslan the lion, Zeus, and the tree-monster from "A Monster Calls" all come to mind.  Salma Hayek is appropriately motherly as Kamila, and the supporting actors all do a fine job in their various roles.  The animation style of the framing story felt like a slo-mo version of Disney's work, and the plot itself often seemed to meander gently, like a twisting stream.  This wasn't boring; it was actually quite pleasant.  Perhaps the only false note, for me, was the political dimension of the story, which I found unnecessary and a bit burdensome.  But the politics are what led to the movie's bittersweet end, so perhaps they were necessary in some sense.

As adaptations go, "The Prophet" was pleasing to the eye and salubrious for the soul.  It managed to be sweet, touching, and occasionally funny; its ending was a mixture of sadness and quiet triumph.  If you're familiar with Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, I think you'll enjoy this animated retelling, which remains faithful to the good-hearted spirit of the original work.

1 comment:

John Mac said...

Thanks for this! I had no idea they had made a movie from the book. I can't find the full version on YouTube, guess I'll have to breakdown and pay for it.

I see now that I've missed a lot by always reading The Prophet like I do a book of poems, which is how I've thought of it. So, I look forward to revisiting the story both in animation and hard copy, which I already own.

Good stuff!